Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, is followed by reporters after speaking at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington.

WASHINGTON - A fresh debate has erupted within the GOP over social issues.

Republicans in Congress and statehouses across the nation are pressing for restrictive abortion measures just three months after party leaders warned against emphasizing divisive cultural topics. Prominent religious conservatives also are pushing the party to embrace limits on abortion and gay rights as evangelical activists gather in Washington.

Several potential Republican presidential candidates appear to be listening.

"This call for us to silence ourselves and to stop speaking about the values that we know work is a big mistake," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told the Faith and Freedom Coalition's gathering. Rubio insisted that "every human life has value ... whether they are born or not."

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul told the group that there is a "war on Christianity, not just from liberal elites here at home, but worldwide." He argued that America should not send foreign aid to countries across the Middle East that persecute Christians.

The comments to the group founded by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed fed a deep division in a Republican Party still trying to recover from painful election losses last fall.

While failing to defeat President Obama, the GOP lost a handful of winnable Senate seats after some candidates made inflammatory statements about women and cultural issues. And in an exhaustive post-election autopsy, the Republican National Committee determined in a March report that the future success of the Republican Party - particularly with female voters - depends on more tolerant attitudes on contentious social matters.

"When it comes to social issues, the party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues," reads the report.

One of the report's authors, Henry Barbour, said Thursday that people "don't need to agree on everything to be a good Republican" and that party growth depends on "multiplication, not division."

Reed, meanwhile, dismissed the RNC's findings as an unnecessary jab at religious conservatives, but he said that his organization also believes in "the politics of addition."

"We think you've got to add more young people, more Hispanics, more women, more African-Americans - you've got to grow the movement and grow the party," Reed said. "But you don't do that by taking the most loyal constituents that you've got and throwing them under the bus."

He said religious conservatives have a simple message for GOP leaders: "Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the pro-life, pro-family and pro-marriage positions that candidates have taken and will take in the future are not a liability at the ballot box; they're an asset."

Reed's gathering of religious conservatives came amid a Republican push to adopt stricter abortion laws in Washington and in state capitols across the country, though neither Rubio nor Paul directly addressed those developments.

In May, a federal court overturned a 20-week abortion ban in Arizona, saying that the law violated a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is viable.

The Faith and Freedom conference continues today and Saturday with appearances by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

"This call for us to silence ourselves and to stop speaking about the values that we know work is a big mistake."

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio